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World Cup preview: England

Ahead of this summer's World Cup in Russia, Sports Mole previews England's chances at the tournament as they look to banish the demons of Brazil and France.

Rarely in the 52 years since Bobby Moore hoisted the Jules Rimet trophy above his head will public expectation for England's chances at a World Cup have been lower.

A first group-stage exit from the competition since 1958 befell Roy Hodgson's side in Brazil four years ago, with defeat in their opening two matches seeing their elimination confirmed with a game still to spare.

The England team lines up ahead of their international friendly with Nigeria in June 2018© Reuters

A winless group stage means that England have only picked up one victory from their last eight World Cup matches - a 1-0 triumph over Slovenia in 2010 - and they have not scored more than one goal in a game since their 2006 group-stage draw with Sweden. Incredibly, the Three Lions have only won back-to-back World Cup games once since their run to the semi-finals in 1990.

Things have arguably got even worse since Brazil, though, with an ignominious early exit at the hands of Iceland in the European Championships two years ago making it successive embarrassments on the world stage.

It is no surprise, then, that not much is expected of England this summer, but without the usual weight of expectation on their shoulders, Southgate will be hoping that his young side can playing more freely and unshackle themselves from what seems to have become a burden of playing for England in recent years.

Here, Sports Mole previews England's chances at this summer's World Cup.


GROUP

The draw could have been a lot worse for England, who will be expected to tussle with Belgium for top spot in Group G.

England group @ 2018 World Cup

While four years ago they came up against Uruguay and Italy in the group stages, this time World Cup debutants Panama and Tunisia - making their first appearance at the competition since 2006 - will be amongst England's opponents.

Southgate will hope to have qualification wrapped up by the time his side face Belgium in Kaliningrad on June 28.

ENGLAND FIXTURES

June 18: Tunisia vs. England (7pm, Volgograd Arena, Volgograd)
June 24: England vs. Panama (1pm, Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod)
June 28: England vs. Belgium (7pm, Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad)


HOW THEY QUALIFIED

As is often the case, England cruised through their qualification campaign with few scares along the way, eventually finishing eight points clear of neighbours Scotland at the top of Group F.

Southgate's side were one of only four teams to go through the qualifying campaign unbeaten, alongside the perfect Germany and the almost-perfect Spain and Belgium - the latter of whom will, of course, face England in the groups at this summer's tournament.

England qualified with a game to spare and boasted the joint-best defensive record of any team in the groups, conceding only three goals in their 10 matches while scoring 18. Furthermore, they have now gone 39 qualifying matches without losing across their two major summer tournaments.

Harry Kane scores the goal which sees England qualify for the 2018 World Cup courtesy of a 1-0 win over Slovenia on October 5, 2017© Reuters

The statistics look good, then, but despite all of the above England still failed to convince with their style of play throughout the qualification process. Drawn in a group alongside Slovakia, Scotland, Slovenia, Malta and Lithuania, England won just four of their matches by more than a one-goal margin - the largest of which was a 4-0 triumph over Malta.

Compare that to some of the favourites in Russia: Belgium won seven of their 10 games by more than a one-goal margin, including three by six or more; Spain also had at least a two-goal cushion in seven of their matches, including two 8-0 wins; Portugal went one better with eight, while Germany only failed to win one of their matches by at least a two-goal margin.

Let us not forget either that England won all 10 of their qualifying matches for Euro 2016, only to crash out at the hands of minnows Iceland in the first knockout round.


RECENT FORM

England will travel to the World Cup on the back of a 10-match unbeaten streak stretching back more than a year, including encouraging victories over both Nigeria and Costa Rica in their two warm-up games.

An impressive first-half display during the 2-1 triumph over Nigeria at Wembley will have pleased Southgate, although the better performance was actually delivered by the fringe players in Leeds on Thursday as they ran out 2-0 winners over Costa Rica.

Marcus Rashford celebrates scoring during the friendly game between England and Costa Rica on June 7, 2018© Reuters

Marcus Rashford in particular will have given Southgate a selection dilemma for the first World Cup game with his man-of-the-match display as the Three Lions put in one of the more energetic and refreshing performances during his time in charge.

England have also recorded draws with world champions Germany, five-time World Cup winners Brazil and four-time winners Italy since booking their place in Russia, in addition to picking up a 1-0 win in the Netherlands earlier this year.

All of that has contributed to England's longest unbeaten streak since a 15-game run which followed their exit from the last World Cup, leaving them in a positive frame of mind ahead of this summer's tournament.


SQUAD

England World Cup squad

Goalkeepers: Jack Butland (Stoke), Jordan Pickford (Everton), Nick Pope (Burnley).

Defenders: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Fabian Delph (Manchester City), Phil Jones (Manchester United), Harry Maguire (Leicester), Danny Rose (Tottenham), John Stones (Manchester City), Kieran Trippier (Tottenham), Kyle Walker (Manchester City), Ashley Young (Manchester United).

Midfielders: Dele Alli, Eric Dier (both Tottenham), Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Jesse Lingard (Manchester United), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea).

Forwards: Harry Kane (Tottenham), Marcus Rashford (Manchester United), Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), Jamie Vardy (Leicester), Danny Welbeck (Arsenal).


STAR PLAYER - Harry Kane

England striker Harry Kane in action during his side's international friendly with Nigeria at Wembley on June 2, 2018© Reuters

Harry Kane will lead the line and lead the team for England this summer, with the Tottenham Hotspur striker having been given the armband by Southgate.

Fresh off the back of his first 30-goal season in the Premier League, Kane has established himself as one of the top strikers in world football over the past few years and could be one of the stars at his first World Cup.

The 24-year-old has scored 13 goals in 24 appearances for England, including eight in his last seven since the beginning of 2017.

Kane should have plenty of support from those around him, particularly the likes of Raheem Sterling and club teammate Dele Alli, but there is no doubt that he is the star man for the Three Lions.


MANAGER - Gareth Southgate

England manager Gareth Southgate watches on during training ahead of the 2018 World Cup© Reuters

Southgate did not take over England in the best of circumstances; he was clearly not the FA's first choice, with Sam Allardyce forced to step down from his role after only one game of their World Cup qualifying campaign and Southgate coming in as his replacement.

The 47-year-old was initially appointed on a caretaker basis, but was handed the full-time reins after going through a four-match trial period unbeaten, finishing with a draw against Spain at Wembley in November 2016.

Southgate earned his stripes at international level with the England Under-21 team prior to his appointment, and he also spent more than three years in charge of Middlesbrough from 2006 to 2009.

A former international himself, Southgate was part of the England squad at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, although the abiding memory of his 57-cap career for his country is his miss in the penalty shootout against Germany at Euro 1996.


WORLD CUP RECORD

Best finish: Winners (1966)

Sir Geoff Hurst scores England's fourth goal in the 1966 World Cup final© Reuters

Geoff Hurst's hat-trick, Nobby Stiles's dance and Bobby Moore lifting the Jules Rimet are all parts of England football folklore from the 1966 final, when England won the World Cup for the one and only time by beating West Germany 4-2 in the final at Wembley.

Aside from that, the Three Lions' best showing in this competition was their run to the semi-finals in 1990, when this time their dreams were ended by eventual champions West Germany, leaving the whole country as teary-eyed as Paul Gascoigne.

Four years ago England were knocked out in the group stages for the first time since 1958, recording their worst-ever finish at a World Cup, while four years before that in South Africa they were eliminated in the last 16 - again by Germany.

The Three Lions have not reached the quarter-finals since the days of Sven-Goran Eriksson, then, achieving back-to-back last-eight finishes in 2002 and 2006, but never making it further under the Swede.

In all, England have played 62 games at the World Cup, winning 26 of those, drawing 20 and losing 16.


PREDICTION

England's progress this summer could rely on whether they clinch top spot in Group G or not. Winning the group could set up a last-16 showdown with Poland, which would perhaps be the preferable choice to facing Colombia in the first knockout round.

Unfortunately for the Three Lions, we expect Belgium to pip them to top spot, and for England to fall at the hands of the South Americans in the last 16.

VERDICT: Last 16

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How far will England go at this summer's World Cup?

Group Stages
Last 16
Quarter-finals
Semi-finals
Runners-up
Winners
Group Stages
5.0%
Last 16
40.0%
Quarter-finals
40.0%
Semi-finals
0.0%
Runners-up
5.0%
Winners
10.0%
England manager Gareth Southgate watches on during the international friendly against Netherlands on March 23, 2018
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Tables
TeamPWDLFAGDPTS
1Manchester CityMan City97202632323
2Liverpool97201631323
3Chelsea96302071321
4Arsenal970222111121
5Tottenham HotspurSpurs9702167921
6Bournemouth95221612417
7Watford95131312116
8Everton94321512315
9Wolverhampton WanderersWolves943298115
10Manchester UnitedMan Utd94231516-114
11Leicester CityLeicester94051515012
12Brighton & Hove AlbionBrighton93241013-311
13Burnley92251017-78
14West Ham UnitedWest Ham9216814-67
15Crystal Palace9216511-67
16Southampton9135614-86
17Cardiff CityCardiff9126819-115
18Fulham91261125-145
19Huddersfield TownHuddersfield9036418-143
20Newcastle UnitedNewcastle9027614-82

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